An Old Friend Comes to Visit

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | April 24, 2022

John 20:19-31

My old friend Thomas came knocking at the door this week. He comes around every year during the week following Easter. While the chords of “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” still echo in my mind, Thomas shows up and reminds me, “If you want the truth of the matter, don’t fear your doubts.”

Talk of Thomas usually involves his “doubt.” After Jesus had been killed his followers were huddled together behind locked doors. They were afraid that what happened to Jesus might happen to them.

In spite of their locked doors and their fears, Jesus appeared amongst them. They believed in him then. But Thomas wasn’t with them when it happened and so he was skeptical. He wanted proof. Jesus appeared again and Thomas saw and believed. And the story ends with Jesus saying it is better to believe without having to have the proof. We take that to mean his is talking about us.

We usually apply the story by saying we need stronger faith, or more of it. Just take the story to heart and believe. Then end. But it always seems a bit too tidy to say, “just believe.” It seems too neatly packaged.

It took some time for Thomas and me to become the friends we are today. When I was younger, he was not held up as a good role model. The word on him was always, “Don’t be a doubter like Thomas.”

And that was fine because when I was young, I had questions and I wanted answers. I had doubts and I wanted certainty. I saw older and wiser people who seemed sure and confident in their lives and that was a quality I wanted. Especially when it came to ideas and questions about God.

Along the way I set myself to learning about God. I went to college for four years and after that I went to seminary for four years and after that I went back for nearly four more years. All that education was a good thing and I learned a lot, but when the last degree was hung on the wall, I still had questions. They were different questions though because the more I learned about God and Jesus, the bigger that subject became.

Thomas made me think and I appreciated that. He also helped me to realize that it’s okay to have unanswered questions. If I learned any answer for sure, it’s that the opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty. Now I try to work on refining the questions.

This year when came around, I welcomed him in and said, “Have a seat, friend. We have some things to talk about.”

“I’m curious,” I said, why were not you with them when Jesus appeared?”

And he said, “That’s a good question. Why do you think I wasn’t with them?”

Thomas never makes it easy. I used to think he wasn’t with them because he was a natural skeptic. For him to go along with Jesus in the first place was a big challenge and when Jesus was killed Thomas probably thought, “I knew it was too good to be true,” and went off to mourn in private. What was the point in being with the followers of Jesus now that he was dead?

Thomas said, “That’s one way of looking at it; sometimes life doesn’t happen the way we expect it to, and God is a big disappointment. We reckon what’s the use of believing in a God who allows bad things happen to good people, i.e. us. So we chuck it in and write God off as a figment of our imagination. But if you read the story there’s a clue as to why I wasn’t with the rest of them. It’s right there in front of you.”

I read the story again, wondering what it could be. And then I saw it. Thomas wasn’t with them because the doors were locked.

“Bingo!” said Thomas. And he added, “Think about the meaning of locked doors.”

Okay, it says that the doors to the place where the followers of Jesus gathered were locked because they were “Afraid of the Jews.” But when John mentioned “The Jews” he was talking about the religion of the people; he was talking about the people who ran the religion – the power elite such as the Pharisees – the religious power structure that was in cahoots with Rome.

It wasn’t “the Jews” so much as it was the fear of “the Jews” that made them want to barricade themselves. Fear has that effect on people. There might be good reasons to be afraid or no reason at all, but the fear itself is very real. When we act out of fear, we tend to draw down the shutters and close up shop.

It’s a natural human tendency to want to find a common bond with other people. Community is our common life together and we’re always moving between different circles of community. Some of them are more open and some of them are more closed. It’s easy enough to define ourselves by the fear of what is outside our locked doors.

When I trained as a fire-fighter one of the basic lessons that we practiced was what we might call, “knowing where the door is.” If you go into a building then, you have to know how to get out. In the fire service there are different methods to go in and get out. What those years of practice did for me was that now, whenever I go into a building of any kind, I automatically think about how I would leave it in the event of an emergency.

What Thomas helps me to see is the importance of keeping an eye on the door. Thomas also reminds me that some of the most dangerous locks are the ones you can’t see. Locks the keys of which are in the mind and they determine whether a mind is open or closed. The lock and key of a closed mind are forged in the fires of fear.

I have a feeling that most of us gather for worship on a Sunday morning, in part because we have questions. We have doubts and uncertainties. We bring our questions, our doubts, our struggles, everything we know and everything we aren’t sure of, because here we can reflect on the meaning of life. We can wonder about God and where we fit in the world and nobody is going to make us feel out of place. 

John’s story of Jesus is the truth of metaphor. Metaphor is a word that means, “transferred image.” Sayings such as, “There’s a weigh on my shoulders,” or “Time is money.”

John contains metaphors such as, “the bread of life,” or “living water.” Looking at the story through metaphor is a way of saying, “this is what truth is like,” or “imagine it this way.” Certainty says, “This is the literal truth. Believe it (or else).” If we view the story through the images that hold meaning, we can begin to form the questions by which meaning is brought to bear in our lives. Such as –

If Jesus is the bread of life, then what is the nature of my hunger?

If he is resurrection and life, then where are my sealed tombs?

Thomas required certainty. He demanded a sign to prove it. Jesus gave him what he wanted. And as the story is usually told, then he believed like he should have all along. And Jesus says, “That’s all well and good, but blessed are those who believe without seeing.”

As the story tends to get told, we’re still left thinking, “Yeah, but if Thomas believed because he demanded a sign, wouldn’t it just be a whole lot easier if God were to give us some clear-cut signal, something equivalent to what Thomas got so that we too could say, “My Lord and my God!?”

But, if the opposite of faith is certainty, then perhaps the blessing of faith without seeing that Jesus talked about is the ability to perceive the reality behind appearances. To see that behind the facade of certainty is a reality of fear. Just as the disciples were huddled together in closed room “for fear of the Jews,” Christians today can close themselves off for fear of “what might be out there.” Or who.

Thomas reminds me to question –

If the nature of Jesus’ message is exclusive, then we can build our fortresses to protect our turf and our belief system. Only the righteous may enter therein. 

But if the nature of Jesus’ message is inclusive, then we can move out of the fortress and into the broad landscape where there is room enough for everyone.

If faith is literal belief, adhering to the proper set of facts and doctrines, then having it means you’re safe. You won’t go to hell when you die.

But if faith is an assurance of what you hope for, and a conviction of what you can’t see, then in order to make it real, you’re not out there or in here making life difficult for people because they don’t live up to your narrow certainties of truth. More likely wherever you are, you are trying to love, to be compassionate and to work for justice. It’s easy to believe in what you can see and touch for yourself.

In order to trust in a hope, an ideal, a promise or a dream – that’s a greater challenge; one in which you are constantly facing your doubts and working through your questions. That’s why I always look forward to a visit from Thomas. He reminds me that it’s okay to ask questions. Amen.

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